Since this writer is not an economist, and won't pretend to be one, he will restrict himself to saying that the political-economic signals coming from the government show confusion and internal conflict in the face of India's serious economic downturn. Cleverness is being camouflaged as policy-making, but the rot always outs, as it has outed with Sonia Gandhi's tall claims on bank nationalization made at a so-called leadership summit organized by a newspaper group.

With an eye on the imminent assembly elections in Delhi and elsewhere and the not-too-distant general elections, Sonia launched into a panegyric on Mrs Indira Gandhi's 1969 and 1980 bank nationalizations. Semi-bank nationalizations are the flavour of the season after the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, otherwise previously sliding in home popularity, ordered a £50 billion bailout of British banks, which got promptly copied in the US and by some debilitated European economies.

Sonia knows no economics, not at any rate to this writer's knowledge. (How much she knows of India or cares is another matter.) It is difficult to say who put Sonia up to the "bank nationalization" theme. The usual suspect would be Jairam Ramesh, who loves embarrassing prime minister Manmohan Singh, the finance minister, P.Chidambaram, and the commerce minister, Kamal Nath. For his own rise, Ramesh would embarrass anybody, save the Gandhi family.

But there is a stronger trail of Sonia's "bank nationalization" panegyric to Chidambaram, ironically, than to Ramesh. In his constituency, Sivaganga, in Tamil Nadu, in late October, the finance minister said that nationalization had helped Indian banks withstand the current crisis. (In other words, the private sector banks were no good at facing the current crisis. Say that to ICICI and HDFC Bank.) Chidambaram was inaugurating the two-thousandth branch of UCO Bank.

Chidambaram's sudden fondness for "bank nationalization" is ironic because he and his PM put every effort at denationalizing banks, but were stopped by the CPI-M and other Left outside supporters of the government. The Left stopped that and prevented a hike in FDI cap in private insurance to forty-nine per cent, which blocked the likes of AIG from disastrously impacting the Indian economy. The Left naturally snubbed Sonia's "bank nationalization" rhetoric, but that's not the entire point.

Whatever the spin about "bank nationalization" now, Indira Gandhi took it as a "political decision" in 1969, and she said so clearly and unambiguously to (the late) I.G.Patel, the economist and former RBI governor and economic affairs secretary. In his memoir,Glimpses of Indian Economic Policy - An Insider's View, Patel says he was directed to draft a bill and cabinet note for bank nationalization and to write Indira Gandhi's Parliament speech for it. The 1980 bank nationalization was not on her agenda, but seeing the unscrupulousness of some private players, Patel convinced her for another round. It is undeniable that bank nationalization met some of the post-facto rationalizations, for example, priority sector lending, expanding banking in rural areas partly to counter moneylenders, and so on, but it also generated inefficiency and politically-induced corruption, of which the Indian Bank scam is a good example. Patel himself turned an economic-ideological full circle and headed a committee in the Nineties to allow private banks in, and he made allowances for them. As Patel wrote, "Men will crave and cringe and crib and quibble and quarrel and create new problems. Economic policy is forever; not any particular policy to be sure, but the search for a better one. The good will never be enough; but the best is a contradiction in terms."

The Patel test is that what may work once may not work again. For Sonia Gandhi and Chidambaram to take credit in these coming elections for the 1969 bank nationalization whose objective was purely political reveals their own political chicanery. Chicanery and cleverness. But what happens to policy-making? Will rhetoric arrest the economic downslide? As Sonia and Chidambaram sing paeans to bank nationalization, the PM has appointed an advisor for himself, Raghuram Rajan, formerly of the IMF, who is a strong but unconvincing votary of denationalization. Anyone in doubt should read his Wharton talk in November last year bombastically called "Rewriting the Rules for Indian Banking."

That's only one aspect of the conflict and confusion at the very heart of government that gives no confidence in Manmohan Singh's leadership to bail out the Indian economy. What's Manmohan Singh's economic leadership of account when Sonia and Chidambaram are locking policy-making with populist rhetoric? A recent poll advertisement for the Congress paid for by a Madras benefactor and published in The Hindu says it all, and it is a joke. Readers must have seen the ad called "Congress Medical Camp" featuring Sonia Gandhi, Shiela Dixit, Chidambaram and Manmohan Singh standing cluelessly around a toxic patient in bed personifying the Indian economy. It is the biggest dis-advertisement for the Congress party you can imagine.

The buzz in UPA ministerial circles is that Manmohan Singh is looking to contest the Lok Sabha elections from Amritsar, and presumably a lot will ride on portraying him as a "saviour" of the Indian economy. Frankly, there is no glimpse of this "saviour" economist so far. At the Beijing Asian Europe Meeting, Manmohan Singh confessed to an intimate knowledge and understanding of all that had made the world go bust, but naturally he was reticent about why he couldn't save the Indian economy in the four-and-a-half years of his prime-ministership.

Yesterday, Swraj Paul of UK's Caparo Group was brutal in assessing that India, according to a wire service report, "would suffer more than Britain…from the current global economic meltdown…because it was quite late in realizing the gravity of the situation…." Swraj Paul is all admiration for Gordon Brown, and not without reason, notwithstanding that they are close. Gordon Brown and Manmohan Singh are both economic administrators-turned PMs, but as clear-thinking and leaderly as one is, the other is confused and robbed of authority. Infernal luck for India.